Giving Watford What For

If you know me, you’ll know that I have an interest in football grounds. As such, I’m a member of the forum on the Football Ground Guide (FGG) website. Last night I was browsing the thread on Watford’s new East Stand, and I was both surprised and not surprised to see people complaining about it. For a start, it’s an internet message board, and people mainly go on them to moan about things. Secondly, many posters on the FGG forum have a real anathema for new build, ‘identkit’, ‘soulless bowl’ type stadia and stands, that ‘lack the character’ of the beloved old buildings they replaced. So why the uproar over a stand that is somewhat wonky and unusual?

Football as a codified sport has been around for about 150 years, and between 1863 and 1914 its growth was massive. Most football clubs that are still around today would have bounced around various recreation grounds before finally settling in what would become their home ground around the turn of the last century. Even a sophisticated stadium would consist of not much more than one grandstand, running not even the full length of the pitch, and three sides of earthen banking for fans to stand on. Football was still growing and at the same time so were the towns and cities that clubs found themselves representing.

By the time football entered the post-war era, most of the game’s grounds were nearing 50 years old, or more. The mounds of earth that spectators stood on every two weeks were concreted over. Second, sometimes even third grandstands were built. Floodlights were added. By the early 80s, most clubs’ grounds were vastly different to how they were in the Victorian era. Decades of piecemeal development, additions and expansions, land restrictions, poor financial planning and bad on-field results contributed to the weird and wonderful old grounds that many football fans loved.

However, many of these eighty year old grounds were no longer fit for purpose. Maintenance was carried out when necessary, but the world had moved on. In an 18 year period between 1971 and 1989, there were four major disasters at football grounds involving British teams; Ibrox, Bradford, Heysel, and Hillsborough, claiming 257 lives. While the poor state of the individual stadiums’ repair was not the only factor in the disasters, it did play a large part in each one. At Ibrox and Hillsborough, the vomitories were not adequate for the sizes of crowds. At Heysel, a dilapidated wall collapsed. At Bradford, rubbish piled up under a wooden grandstand and then caught fire.

Following the Ibrox Disaster, the Guide to Safety at Sports Grounds was published in 1973, and the Safety in Sports Ground Act legislation passed in 1975. Following Bradford, the Popplewell Inquiry placed restrictions around the use of wooden grandstands. It was however, Lord Justice Taylor’s report into Hillsborough that would most change British football stadia. The Taylor Report mandated that (and this is a simplified summary) that all major football grounds in England and Scotland convert to all-seater by August 1994.

As a result, there was a flurry of construction work in the years leading up to the Taylor Report deadline. Tired old wooden stands with roofs propped up with pillars disappeared, to be replaced with brand-new cantilever-roofed structures. It was a common sight in the early 90s to see wooden hoarding behind one goal during a football match, with heavy plant machinery visible on the building site beyond. Each club found their own individual barriers to development, and their own solutions, as football clubs always have. Some

This, I suspect, is the period that the opinion new ‘characterless’ grounds started to supplant the old ‘characterful’ grounds started to emerge. Again, I’m not sure it’s as simple as that. Some, like Rangers and Celtic, had land available, and found resources to almost completely rebuild their stadium (it should be noted that Rangers redeveloped in the early 80s.) Other clubs found that 100 years of urban sprawl meant they couldn’t expand their ground’s footprint, and had to go down the route of building oddly shaped stands to fit the available space (Southampton and Nottingham Forest spring to mind.) Others still decided that it was cheaper and easier to just move to a new stadium on a green or brownfield site, perhaps echoing how they’d ended up at their existing ground in the first place.

This, I think, is the gist of my argument. Many of the old grounds that would be considered characterful were little more than identikit stadiums when they were originally built. They acquired their character over the decades, through the odd addition here, and the odd rebuild there. This process is still ongoing, and can be viewed in many of the new build ‘identikit’ stadia constructed in the 90s and 00s. Walsall moved to the Bescot Stadium in 1990; in 2002 one stand was extended, breaking the symmetry. Derby, Middlesbrough, and Sunderland have done the same. Cardiff added a new tier to one of their stands, which has red seats rather than the standard blue because reasons. Wolves more or less completely rebuilt Molineux in the early 90s, but decided to embark on a rebuild of the rebuild in 2010. They finished one stand before the masterplan was put on ice, resulting in one end of the ground looking completely different to the rest.

As for Watford, theirs is a slightly different case. They rebuilt three-quarters of the ground in the early 90s, but were left with a mouldering, dilapidated main stand they couldn’t afford to do anything with. Eventually, a new owner stumped up the money to put a very functional, semi-permanent stand in place. When it was first built, the front row was raised six foot or so above pitch level; this is almost certainly due to Vicarage Road having a pitch that slopes notably from one end to the other. Upon securing promotion to the Premier League last summer, Watford added some more temporary rows to the front of the stand that taper from one end to the other to address the slope. It looks quite odd, but pleasantly quirky. With a small pod of seats in one corner of the ground now joined on, it’s a stand that is a response to the restrictions the club faced (footprint, money, sloping pitch,) with ad hoc additions, and developed a character of its own. I don’t think it’s an ideal solution, but I don’t think you could argue that any of the old favourite stands were either. The budget for the stand might be relatively low, but that’s a necessary evil. Back in the early 90s, everyone was in the redevelopment arms race, and not investing in their playing squad. That’s not the case now, and some clubs have found that an expensive new stadium development impinges their ability to compete on the field.

I don’t think character is something you can plan in construction. Perhaps a really good architect can, but I definitely think that the type of character the football fans talk of being possessed by their favourite grounds is something that is developed over years, by good decisions and missteps, ambition and restriction. Watford’s East Stand suits where they are right now, and it probably won’t drag them into debt. So what’s wrong with that?